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Review: The Wagner's by John Colasacco

The Wagners by John Colasacco

Trnsfr Books, 2019 104 pages

The Wagners by John Colasacco is a precious and foreboding book, a small, neat hardcover, with 104 pages of haunting, cynical, social commentary and 16 illustrations that read like warnings on a label, each in a black ring. O it starts out alright, “One night after another the business of the city went on,” but the question is put just after, “Are you going to kill us?” But no, since that’s not going to happen, it’s just the normal start to a usual book about regular lives told in poetry, except we don’t always know who is talking to who, or about what. We lean in so far to find out, we nearly fall in.

In a festival of weird-real and unalleviatable pain, The Wagners operates on us from a strong and tremoring center, an attic I think, from which stones are thrown out a window to anywhere in range--strong throwing arm--to the yard, the street, the school, a distant mountain range, the other side of the world. And we follow them and watch them land and roll and die. “Wagner comes to the end of his sentence. There’s a pause. ‘There’s more to the story but I have to go be hanged later today,’ he says under his breath.” From these stones sprouts death, in suicide notes and accidents, in band-aids, blood and sticks broken off in bodies, in the black frigate bird that flies by our window and the man from 1944 who is forced to cut throats for salt and shelter. Did you know frigates are kleptoparasitic, they practice piracy by stealing? What I’m saying is, if you look closely at this poem you will see yourself. And even if you fail, you will see something beautiful and sad, which will be your own two cameras clicking.

Colasacco employs language to layer and manipulate images of you and me and himself and The Wagners. We receive a picture of ourselves digitally altered, unfolding into finely patterned screen of infinity. “Someone from the crowd attaches themselves to you, wanting to know if you have any memory of a place called Mirror Lake.” In following the dirt roads that lead to the mountain ranges that lead to the one unsatisfied resident, we face the conclusion, at the horizon line that, “In other places, of course, the exact opposite is true.” We see the mirror image of our genetic thread.

The Wagners is the combined narrative we tell ourselves between life tasks, our sticky-note-self-biography, the confusion of memories that builds to a sense. What sense? The expected moment is not arriving. What you have before you is it. The best we can do, as we serve out our sentence, is recognize ourselves, but with so many obstacles that is nearly impossible. And so we welcome, with surprise, the abrupt swerve it takes on page 80, when it creases and folds in to see itself. We see the dime that fell on page six again, in the moment before it fell, when it was still pressed into a cheek. We don’t know how or why or what changed, but there was money in that face. That whole stanza feels like a tribute to all that came before. The award speech to the people and places and objects in our lives. Born of gratitude. Though it never trumps the many forms of mourning for a life continuously ending, and starting up again.

We are left to relish life’s finalities, “At the end of the hall, she and he have closed a door.” “The way he puts it makes it sound like the end of things.” “It had the final intelligence of the sun.” “The moment he accepts she is gone...” Experiencing life like this, as a continuously expiring and resuscitated thing, we celebrate, with enthusiasm, the moments it chooses to live, as when the husband embraces the wife he dreamt had died. But Colasacco’s relief and laughter are never easy and his embraces stiff.

Like an impact lawn sprinkler, The Wagners jars along, confronting us with such sharp shots as, “Fifty years pass in the room where two boys with milk teeth commit a sexual assault.” “Everyone nods.” “A tan car keep turning around slowly in the cul-de-sac, and from the drafty window, they see it, knowing that driver.” Beauty butts up against the banal, the things we cannot know, against the things we should not. And every object and action pushes us on and down into the paper, depressing and illuminating it. Telling us? We are the Wagners. The ones in the house with the white knives, the cut tongues, the clocks that run differently. “This is where the nose goes! My nose...and your nose!” What else do we need to know?

Ok yes, we have to talk about maroon, because it floats in from so many directions it stains our senses. It is in the generations-old store signs, the chestnut-colored exercise bike (maroon from the French for chestnut), in the sealed jars in the basement and the skin of the girls who change from brown to red and in dozens of other corners. More than burgundy, less than red, maroon takes blue to make. To be marooned, which The Wagners are, is to be abandoned, intentionally. Their only hope of connecting is to try to mirror the outside world, which they cannot achieve. This is their tragedy and triumph, even the trying. And it is what draws us to them. Leaning into their paranormal, we lean into ours, and into failure. And as we lean, we build an alter space inside ourselves, a collage of teeth-ripped bits, sloppily set and glued. Ah delicious and difficult life!

The cumulative effect of The Wagners is Heureka-ian, that purposeless, self-destructing machine Jean Tinguely built, that spoils itself with work. The lesson Tehching Hsieh taught us in his year-long performance, Time Clock. We are subjects of time and must serve it out. “Meanwhile the door stays closed, and gradually the time lengthens...” This is what life looks like without the protein-shake narrative we tell it, the tremoring breath beneath a sticky note roof. And still “certain houses line up to be in a picture.” Yes and I think they ought to take a bow. What else can I offer but to advise reading The Wagners fully nude and wrapped in old newspapers in a foreign language. You won’t want any distractions, but something weird and banal of your own to address.


A K Mimi Allin is a poet and performer and video artist. She has an MA in Writing from City College New York and a BA in Literature from UMass/Boston. She has carried a typewriter across the Alps, drawn a line around Mt Rainier with her body, limited her speech to 108 words from one poem by Pablo Neruda for 108 days, planted a 2000-mile dream canopy from Mexico to Canada and inscribed all of Shakespeare's sonnets in the sand at low tide.

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